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Goth Goes Gray
How the aging post-punk movement is dealing with middle age, and beyond
By Michael Jarema, contributing writer
Paul Samuels described himself as an ElderGoth – which means exactly what you’d think it does. He’s a mature post-punker who still has a penchant for moody rock music and the color black.
In 2004, he co-owned Savage Garden, an established Toronto goth nightclub. As DJ Pale, he was a leading figure in the city’s “vibrant” Goth scene. And although he dressed exclusively in black, by then he'd forgone at least one of the movement’s trademark trappings – he kept his hair in a ponytail. And remarkably, it was no longer black.
He was 34, aging by Goth standards.
In an interview with This: Toronto1 he reflected: “When you're young, all you want to do is conform with other non–conformists, buy the latest album you're supposed to. As you get older, you realize [Goth] is more than just dressing up and partying. You realize you've got some weird kink in the back of your head.”
May 22 is World Goth Day, a day, according to the official website, where the “Goth scene gets to celebrate its own being, and an opportunity to make its presence known to the rest of the world.”
As the post-punk subculture edges toward late middle age, many of its original practitioners are doing the same – hitting their 40s and beyond. They have kids. They have jobs. They have mortgages and other trappings of mainstream lives. But they’re still Goths. They still have those weird kinks in the back of their heads.
Samuels had it figured out fifteen years ago – you don’t have to be young to be a Goth.
Groovella Blak agreed. Although she wouldn’t disclose her birthdate to This: Toronto, writer Lisa Ladouceu referred to the then-proprietor of Goth fashion boutique, Siren, as a “sort of fairy gothmother.”
Blak said, "It's interesting. I get mother and daughter pairs coming in. I don't know if the parent was doing it first and the son or daughter caught on or the other way around but I have a few of those customers. The mother isn't going to clubs anymore, she just likes the look and the way it feels. If that's what they want to do, who are we to question? If you can still look good at 60 or 70, that's great."
Blak was already an ElderGoth herself when she opened her store in 1988.
New Yorker Judy Miller Silverman was of a like mind. In a 2016 Vancouver Sun report2, she recounted going Goth as a teenager in the ‘80s and horrifying her mother by wearing a cross.
"They told me it was too hot today to wear all black,” she commented on her ongoing embrace of Goth fashion. “I said, ‘Screw ‘em’.”
But the ongoing appeal of goth isn’t limited to the overt fashion. As writer Karmira Gander – herself a Goth – pointed out in "Gothic Modern"3, a 2016 The Independent article on Goth’s perseverance, most pop subcultures rightly have a brief lifespan. Or if they don’t, their aging proponents become a parody of themselves.
But Goth apparently presents its devotees something of more substance. Gander explained, “As a teenage girl, Goth offered an escape from a mainstream culture that obsessed about female bodies and sex. How will your curves fill out? Are you frigid or a slut? Goth culture seemed instead to value intelligence, and to engage with the inescapable constants of existence.”
"Goth endures because it's the very nature of most people to have a dark side,'' DJ Cruel Britannia, one of the two originators of World Goth Day, told Gander. “Be it a curiosity in the macabre through books, or an interest in history, or through a particular style of music that appeals to them.”
Lisa Butter, the “arch-Goth” (who is the go-to Goth for music and fashion advice) of Gander’s social circle, agreed. “For me, Goth is a feeling, it's a way of thinking and being, it's finding beauty in darkness and destruction. When I look at bones or dead flowers or a ruin, I see beauty and potential to live on in a new way."
Does this then explain the continued appeal? Initially attracted to Goth by the familiar adolescent fascination with mortality, do today’s aging Goths find solace in acceptance? As they age, does being Goth offer an understanding of – maybe even familiarity with – the inevitable?
According to Ladouceu of This: Toronto, sociologist Linda Andes called this "transcendence" – the stage in which members of the subculture cease to concern themselves primarily with their clothes or communities. But Landouceu called it “Nothing to prove.”
Paul Samuels added, “For me, my experience has only expanded. The only difference is a greater perspective. Everything I believe in hasn't changed. It never will."
"Goth is the one culture you can age gracefully in,” says Blak. “You can slip through the cracks of time."
And Goth goes on...
On March 29 this year, formative Goth band, The Cure, was inducted4 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Front man Robert Smith gave a polite but brief acceptance speech, preferring instead to use the band’s allocated time to play some music. Three weeks later, he turned 605.
- Ladouceur, L. (2004, May). Lords of the New Church: From the Godfather of Punk to the Underground's Fairy Gothmother, Meet the Leaders of a Lifestyle Revolution, Whose Style and Attitude Long Ago Transcended the Mainstream. This: Toronto. Available from ProQuest Central.
- Copeland, L. (2016, Jul 30). Goth at 40; The Enduring Appeal of Bleakness and Black Lipstick. The Vancouver Sun. Available from ProQuest Central.
- Gander, K. (2016). Gothic Modern. London (UK): Independent Digital News & Media. Available from ProQuest Central.
- McDermott, M., & Ryan, P. (2019, Apr 27). Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2019: Stevie Nicks, Janet Jackson and More Highlights. USA Today (Online). Available from ProQuest Central.
- Celebrity Birthdays for April 21. (2019, Apr 19). The Canadian Press. Available from ProQuest Central.
Michael Jarema is an Ypsilanti, Michigan-based writer, filmmaker, sometime-foodie, and full-time craft beer enthusiast. He regularly incorporates the latter when working on his current pet writing project – a graphic novel titled, I Kill Nazis with Dinosaurs.